Columns

College Sports Boycott Threat Forces Shift in Arkansas Concealed Carry Law

Arkansas fans cheer on the Hogs during an NCAA football game against UTEP at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, Ark., on Sept. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Samantha Baker)

Facing calls for the NCAA and other collegiate sports organizations to boycott the state, some Arkansas politicians have blinked – and the National Rifle Association is not happy with what the NRA sees as a new wobble in their spines.

This boycott threat did not come from those upset because of a bathroom law or any other social issue. This outrage was sparked by gun-rights legislation signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) in March.

The sweeping legislation, as passed by the legislature and signed by Hutchinson, would have allowed anyone with the proper training to carry a concealed weapon anywhere in the Razorback State, including state college and university campuses and sports facilities.

Fox Sports News columnist Chris Strauss pointed to the illogic of fans being allowed to bring guns to a game, but not being permitted to bring beach balls into the University of Arkansas’ Razorback Stadium.

Strauss also warned of the anger of a capacity crowd enraged because its team had lost a game or a referee had blown a call.

“The kind of sports-induced flash blindness that makes normally rational people say and do temporarily irrational things that they wouldn’t do in any other setting,” Strauss wrote. “Now imagine if several thousand people in that crowd all had loaded handguns.”

That prospect worried another writer so much that he raised the possibility of some teams refusing to play in Arkansas.

“Opposing teams should consider boycotting participating in these games should this become a reality in practice,” Kyle Koster wrote in his column in the Big Lead. “Not due to any political motivation or stand against the law, but because there is a reasonable case to be made that this will put them in an unsafe position.”

The dual prospect of a crowd of angry people with guns and a statewide boycott sent shock waves of fear through other colleges whose sports teams play in Arkansas.

“UA sources fear if law ends up allowing guns in stadiums it could be end of their SEC membership,” tweeted sports talk show host Bo Mattingly.

Southeastern Conference officials said in a statement that college sporting events were the last places where people should be allowed to carry weapons.

“Given the intense atmosphere surrounding athletic events, adding weapons increases safety concerns,” the SEC said in a statement. “HB 1249 creates concerns for the Southeastern Conference and its member institutions. It remains our collective desire to provide a safe environment for student-athletes, coaches, officials and fans, and will continue to closely monitor the status of this legislation.”

Arkansas Rep. Charlie Collins, who sponsored the legislation in the House, said he understood why “breaking new ground” might make some people nervous.

“I understand a subject like guns or snakes or spiders is very emotional, but I am optimistic we’ll be able to balance this so that we can move forward and not risk some kind of a conflict with our sports programs that no one expects to do,” Collins said on Mattingly’s talk show, “Sports Talk With Bo.”

The new law, even though it was signed by Gov. Hutchinson on March 22, was not scheduled to go into effect until Jan. 1, 2018. So, those who feared a boycott and the idea of guns at college sporting events decided there was time to fix it.

An amendment, SB 724, sponsored by Rep. Bob Ballinger (R) in the House, allows college officials to ban concealed weapons from their athletic events, but only if they submit new security plans that are approved by the Arkansas State Police.

The Arkansas Senate approved the amendment and the House quickly followed suit March 31.

Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang (R) told the Arkansas News the amendment made a good law, better.

“I think the compromise that was reached through the (amendment) ensures that that safety is provided for those individuals attending those games and those events,” Dismang said.

So now, as it always has been, Arkansas college and university officials will decide whether people can carry guns on campus.

“We have always been concerned about guns on campus,” University of Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz said in a statement. “That is why all along that we have wanted to keep the law as it was, leaving this important decision to our board of Trustees.”

But the National Rifle Association is not at all happy. The NRA believes this amendment to legislation it had supported not only hurts public safety but also presents a new threat to people legally carrying weapons.

“This amendment falls far short and creates additional problems for law-abiding gun owners in Arkansas by allowing any ‘collegiate athletic event,’ to simply designate ‘firearm-sensitive areas’ to prohibit carry,” the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action said in a statement.

“This language is so broad, that it may encompass an entire campus and creates a trap to ensnare law-abiding gun owners,” the NRA-ILA also said, “who are simply trying to provide for their own personal safety.”

Ballinger usually finds himself on the same side of the gun-rights debate as the National Rifle Association. However, this time, he’s on the other side of the table.

“I love my A-plus [rating] with NRA. I wish I could keep my A-plus with NRA,” Ballinger said. “But I came down here to legislate.”

The legislation will have to go back to the Senate for some minor changes before it is returned to Hutchinson.